Dr. Kevin Folta is a molecular biologist who is well known for his work toward reviving flavor in strawberries through the identification of flavor-conferring volatiles. But, at a recent visit to HM.CLAUSE, he wowed the audience as he shared his latest findings on the effects of light exposure on plants.
There are two ways you can affect plant growth,” said Folta. “Genetics and the environment.” The first is through breeding, selection, induced mutations and genetic modification. The other involves spacing, fertilizer, colored mulches, and of course, light exposure. For the better part of the past twenty years, Dr. Folta has been experimenting with how plants react to different patterns of light exposure, not just blue and red light as has been done for decades, but from across the UV and far red parts of the spectrum. When he first began, LEDs were less sophisticated and more costly than they are today, which means that his research in this area has progressed enough in recent years that he is now publishing more findings. And they are riveting.
In front of a mixed room full of cell biologists, plant pathologists, and laypeople (with whom he is especially concerned about effectively communicating scientific messages), Dr. Folta explained that plants have thirteen different known light receptors and that these photoreceptors are connected to trait expression. The impact of light exposure can affect the way that plants grow and taste. The resulting photomorphogenesis in plants is what he calls “Environmentally Modified Organisms.”
Folta elaborated, “This means that you can have one genotype, but many different phenotypes.” Take kale for example. When exposed to different light combinations, baby red Russian kale can go from yellow, to green, to red, to vibrant purple. The market for these multi-colored microgreens has never been stronger thanks to chefs and foodies who value them for their hand in elevating plating and presentation. A mix of microgreens that diverse in color is so appealing to chefs that they will pay $80 to $120 per pound for it, said Folta.
While Folta and his team have not identified the exact molecular mechanism(s) responsible for these modifications, they have confirmed that the changes to plants’ metabolic processes and gene expression as a result of light exposure are material. He and his team have conducted experiments on 22 different crop species and documented changes that range from enhancing the characteristic flavors of herbs to increasing the sugary volatiles in berries. He imagines that plants may one day come with a playlist for light control that can be downloaded for compact light array systems. This begs the question, will refrigerators soon incorporate light schemes for crisper bins that maintain or boost flavor post-harvest? “Imagine that when you close the refrigerator door, a light turns on instead of turning off,” he posited. Makes sense since fruits and vegetables are still alive while under refrigeration.
HM.CLAUSE and the University of Florida have been collaborating for more than a year on the Challenge 2050 Project, a certificate program of the university’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences that trains tomorrow’s leaders to sustainably address the food, health, economic and social challenges associated with a rapidly growing world population.
As part of the ongoing collaboration with UF, Dr. Folta was invited to HM.CLAUSE by Cecilia Chi-Ham, Director of R&D Resources Planning. “We proactively seek exposure to new ideas because it broadens and stimulates our own thinking, which helps facilitate ongoing innovation in our space,” said Chi-Ham.